Jonathan Frid (1924 – 2012)
I remember one of the saddest days for me, and most likely many a horror fan was on April 14, 2012. What is even more sad about this date was the reported death of not only one talented actor, Jonathan Frid, but that of even another actor, William Finley. Most will remember Jonathan Frid, who was immortalized on the old television show and daytime gothic soap opera, Dark Shadows. Frid played the role of Count Barnabas Collins. He passed away from complications of a fall at the age of 87.
John was born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada on December 2nd, 1924. He graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London and soon after began his theatre career in the United States in 1960. In 1962 he adopted the stage name Jonathan Frid in 1962. He was completely unaware that he would eventually receive a part that would forever earn his name in horror history – Count Barnabas Collins.
One day, Jonathan had barely entered his apartment while listening to a phone call that had come in from his agent about winning the role as the tortured but mysterious vampire. He accepted the role on the conditions that this character would be short-lived, which would provide him with some extra cash in the meantime when he would move to the West Coast to become an acting teacher. But as soon as Barnabas’s popularity soared with viewers of this gothic soap opera, Frid eventually scrapped his initial plans and soon became a regular cast member. In fact, he was and still is the most remembered character from the show.
The behind the scenes story of the original Dark Shadows series is where the real fascination with the show lies. The crazed production, the eclectic ensemble cast, the enduring legacy – it’s some serious “stranger than fiction” stuff. No one embodied the unlikely phenomenon of Dark Shadows more than Jonathan Frid, the stage actor with little experience on television, he was hired for a short stint on the struggling soap just before a planned move out west. As Mr. Frid told it, he very nearly didn’t pick up the phone when the show called to cast him; he was outside his door with the bag packed and went back in at the last minute to answer. The actor’s plans – and the second half of his life – were forever changed by the call.
Barnabas Collins, the vampire ancestor of the Collins clan, was scheduled for a six-week story arc on the soap. But the show quickly changed gears and turned Barnabas into the central figure after thousands of fan letters poured in for the actor, whose nervous, at first uncertain portrayal gave his villainous vampire a sympathetic quality onto which the show’s viewers quickly latched. What followed was a four-year whirlwind that Frid couldn’t have imagined.
When it all ended in 1971, the actor simply got on with his life, returning to the stage, appearing in very few other films (he starred in Seizure, Oliver Stone’s directorial debut), and making no secret of the fact that he never really understood just what got fans of Dark Shadows so worked up about him. He was the central figure of a phenomenon for which he seemed grateful, but simply couldn’t get his head around.
In 2011 he was flown to England to film a cameo for the Tim Burton/Johnny Depp remake of his show. By co-star Kathryn Leigh Scott’s account, Frid alone was unimpressed by the opulent production and the “honored guest” pageantry, eager to get shooting and get back home. After three takes, he told Burton that he’d had enough, and hit the bricks.
Assuming Burton got a take he could use, it will be Frid’s last acting credit; he passed away peacefully of natural causes on April 13th. Some folks might be inclined to mourn the fact that he’ll never get to see the film; I’m not 100% sure he would have watched it anyway. To the end, he was about the work, wanting to do good work, and as much as we’ve giggled over parts of the show – a panic-stricken Jonathan Frid struggling to remember a line, or screaming to the high heavens as a rubber bat bounced into his neck, “biting” him – you can’t deny that he’s really going for it and giving it his all. He might have shrugged at the fanbase, but for thirty minutes a day from 1967 – 1971, he gave those fans the best performance he could muster, never phoning it in. Ultimately, Mr. Frid and the rest of the cast acting their hearts out within the show’s absurd milieu is what gives it its unique appeal. It’s a crazy moment of pop culture history that wouldn’t have happened without him.
And even if he never “got” it, in his later years he seemed to at least embrace it. In 2006, he addressed a convention hall full of Dark Shadows fans over the telephone, and the room erupted as if Elvis had entered the building. The next year he appeared in person (to even greater fanfare), and as he watched a highlight reel of his work on Dark Shadows, it seemed as if it finally clicked for him – still a stage actor at heart, he simply needed to experience the show with an audience in attendance.
By – Michael Parker